In Conversation with Olli Haaskivi ~ Actor: The Sinner, Manifest, The Deuce

Photo Credit: Ross Collab

Olli Haaskivi is an American actor who has enjoyed treading the boards and has also appeared in many film and TV productions. We sat down and talked about his upbringing, his Finnish heritage, the actors and directors he’s had the pleasure of working with and a whole lot more.

PC: Beginning with your name, that is pronounced Oh-lee not Ah-lee, is that correct?

OH: Yes exactly – it rhymes with goalie – but I’m not too fussy about how my name is pronounced.

PC: I suppose there is scope for it being pronounced in a few different ways, but that happens doesn’t it.

OH: I would waste hours of my life correcting people if I truly cared about everyone pronouncing it right. I think I learned pretty early on it’s not ultimately that important. Not every barista needs to say it correctly, I’ll be fine.

PC: Do you know much about your Finnish heritage, is that something your parents have instilled in you, your past and family history?

OH: My parents were both born and raised in Finland and they met there before moving to the United States. Almost all of the rest of my family, my aunts, uncles and cousins all live in Finland. For a very long time we were the only branch of our family in the USA.

PC: Have you been to Finland many times?

OH: It has been a little while but I’ve made a lot of trips there. I have a younger sister and as we got a little older it got harder to get the whole family together at the same time but I went quite a lot when I was growing up.

PC: What about Finnish cuisine, do you enjoy the food?

OH: Oh my God, the two things that I love so much are… there is a brand of chocolate called Karl Fazer, do you know it?

PC: No I don’t think I’ve heard of it.

OH: That’s the best chocolate in the whole world. There is a store in New York City actually that sells Scandinavian candies so I go there pretty regularly to purchase my Karl Fazer chocolate bars. I was raised on those, truly it’s the best chocolate in the world, you have no idea. And then there is this Finnish breakfast food that’s called Karjalan piirakka, it’s sort of like a rice cake and rye bread, you can have it with egg salad, you can throw a bunch of butter on it. Those are my two very favourite Finnish foods.

PC: Nice! Were you close to your grandparents growing up?

OH: I wasn’t really, I’m sorry to say. I mean we had good relationships for sure but I was a young kid and they only really spoke Finnish, they didn’t speak much English. I have memories of them that are very happy and very sweet and I know how much they loved my parents and loved me and my sister.

PC: That’s all you need to know really.

OH: This was the early days of the Internet so it wasn’t as easy to stay in touch as it would have been even 10 years later. I have very happy memories but part of growing up in the United States… I have friends who have aunts and uncles in the same town or that are two states away, I didn’t really grow up like that at all, it was really just the four of us. Relatives would visit from time to time and we would visit them but I didn’t grow up with the experience of a bunch of family close by.

PC: You were born in Cleveland, then when you were 8 you moved to Florida: was that because of your dad’s soccer career?

OH: Yes, I was born in Cleveland because he was on a team at the time called the Cleveland Force. It’s pretty amazing that still in downtown Cleveland there’s is a giant photo of him in this big mall called Tower City. There was also a restaurant downtown that for a long time had this big oil painting of my dad.

PC: Was that because he was such a great soccer player or because he was a well respected guy? I read two people named their kids after him, you have to be a nice person, as well as successful, for people to do that.

OH: Yes, I think so, I would agree with that. It’s interesting too because he retired when I was 6 or 7 years old so I don’t have a ton of memories of his soccer career. I remember going to games and I remember cheering him on but I don’t think I had much of a sense of the fact that he was sort of their star player for a time. People were really excited about him and every once in a while someone will see me in a play, will recognise my name or something like that, and ask if I’m related to Kai Haaskivi – I think he really did have a big impact.

PC: That’s amazing that still happens after all these years.

OH: He used to do soccer camps in the summer, so I think in addition to being this really amazing soccer player, he was involved in the community  and that had just as much as impact if not more.

PC: I have interviewed actors whose parents were famous and they had enjoyed experiencing the attention and adoration their dad, for example, received from fans and it rubbed off on them, resulting in them wanting a piece of that in their adult lives. This obviously is not the case for you since it happened at a very, very young age.

OH: I think you are exactly right about that. As much as I knew people were excited about him and that he was successful, I didn’t have much of a sense beyond that. I remember they had a big event when he retired, but even then you kind of don’t know any better because you are a kid. My dad was a soccer player (he coaches now) and my mom is an extraordinary interior decorator and I think the way it really benefited me is that both of my parents understand what it is to follow what you are excited about, follow something you are passionate about, even if it’s a little bit of an atypical career.

PC: So were they very supportive of you wanting to become an actor?

OH: Yeah, I definitely think they were a little nervous about it as most parents would be. But I think they essentially said, ‘We understand what it is to do what you are excited about, you know – go do it.’ They knew that it might be hard but I think that they had a deeper understanding of what it is to pursue your passion than maybe some other people.

PC: When I was at school I was into all the arty subjects and I was even sent for an audition by my drama teacher but my parents were adamant I would leave school and get a job, no flights of fancy!

OH: It’s hard, it’s not the kind of career most people understand, unless they truly know someone who’s involved in it and even then there is only so much you can know.

PC: I used to think, before I started interviewing, an actor’s life is a glamorous life but in fact it’s so stressful: mental health implications, worrying where the next job is coming from, the money side of it and being away from your family, if you have one, as a fan you just don’t see that.

OH: I think that there are definitely moments that can feel glamorous and exciting but I think it’s surrounded by a lot of things that are really challenging and really complicated. It’s a rollercoaster, big ups and big downs.

PC: You have to keep pushing all the time to sustain your career, you must push push push for that next audition, it’s constant.

OH: I have some friends that are household names and I see that it doesn’t change – their bank account probably looks different than mine does – but I think it’s a comforting fact as well as a horrifying fact that everybody is worried about the next job, and everyone is nervous. Also every time you make a jump in your career you are at the bottom of that next rung. I sometimes find myself now at auditions where I’m the only person at that audition who doesn’t have their own TV show. It’s exciting to be there and I do feel like I earned my place in those auditions but you can sort of feel like, ‘Oh well, all of these people, their names might bring more value to the project than mine would.’

A couple of years ago I had different challenges and I feel it’s just like a never ending stream of complications that you have deal with. And again, I think there is a side of that which is really comforting. You have to keep working hard, showing up to each opportunity and doing your best. There are disheartening components to that but it is also an opportunity to keep pushing yourself and to keep exploring this craft that hopefully you love.

PC: It just takes that one director or casting to recognise your suitability or magic. Mindhunter, in both seasons, had many spectacular actors playing the varied serial killers who certainly weren’t household names, so even if you are up against someone much more experienced than yourself there is still that glimmer of hope that they will see something special in you.

OH: I think that’s why persistence and bouncing back from disappointment as fast as you can is the name of the game because it can be very surprising which jobs work out and which don’t. There have definitely been situations where I’ve had auditions feeling like, ‘No way is this part my part,’ and then, effortlessly, it ends up falling into my lap. There are also auditions that feel like a home run in some way or feel like they could be exactly right and they don’t even take a second look at you.

I think that’s why, really more than anything, you have to keep showing up and trying your best. I really think it’s all about one’s disposition more than it is about talent. I know a lot of incredibly talented people that I went to high school and college with that just sort of felt like they couldn’t stick with it, and you can’t blame them. I can’t blame anybody for not wanting to put themselves through this thing that is full of frustration.

PC: Do you feel that you are typecast in any way with the different roles you have had, or do you think you have played completely different roles?

OH: That’s a good question. I think it sort of goes on. I’ve lived in New York City for eleven years, I’ve been lucky to be working for a lot of that time and I think that really early on I was cast mostly as a sweet young boy or a nerdy young boy, but I’m 33 years old now so I can’t really do that any more. I think that I’ve been really lucky in that maybe there are 4 or 5 types of parts I’ve played a couple of times, but there are a lot of people who only play one type. I do feel like a benefit of not being that recognisable is that I don’t have the baggage, at least at this point, of a performance that everybody has seen and remembered. I think there are advantages to that and disadvantages to that. The advantage is I’m able to audition for and hopefully get cast in a wide range of parts, I don’t feel like it’s been too narrow a range, though that may change at some point. As long as it keeps changing is what I’m excited about; I obviously want to explore the broadest range I possibly can. People may see similarities between some of those parts but I think you’d probably say that for anybody; I don’t think I’ve been stuck in one little box and I feel thankful for that.

Photo credit: Ted Ely

PC: You do give off that vibe that you could portray someone completely evil or absolutely sweet. I have interviewed a couple of actors who have been very much typecast and it really gets to them.

OH: People need jobs, obviously, and people need to keep working and I would hope that if I found myself in that situation… I do feel like I’m always trying to come at things from a different angle than the last time. I can maybe see situations where, Oh this role feels a little similar to that other role, so okay what can I do about that? What can I adjust?’ Maybe no one would even notice it on the outside but at least I can try to keep it different for myself. You can always change your approach – I guess that would be my advice to someone who is feeling a little stuck.

PC: How open are directors to you adding your own input to a character? Are they generally quite flexible or does it depend on the director?

OH: I think it really depends on the director, especially because television and film directors come from such varied backgrounds. Some I’ve worked with come from acting backgrounds, some from cinematography backgrounds, whereas most theatre directors come from a theatre background, so more often than not you are all speaking the same language and you have a common frame of reference, and that’s not so much the case on television and in film.  I just worked with this amazing director called Marisol Adler on an episode of Manifest that will come out next year, and she was incredibly collaborative and open to everyone’s ideas and then I’ve also worked with directors who literally never speak to you.

Part of your job, I really do think, is assessing what a director needs from you. It’s like they are driving the car and you just have to jump on and figure out what their style is and how you can best work within that.

PC: I suppose it’s what it says in their job title ‘Director’, they are there to direct you.

Getting back to your career choice, I read your uncle is a well-known ice hockey player: was there ever any pressure for you to do sports? Were you into sports?

OH: There really wasn’t any pressure and I think that’s really a special thing, I don’t know if that’s common. I did soccer camps and I did tennis camps, I definitely played sports a little bit.

PC: Did you enjoy playing?

OH: Tennis was what I enjoyed the most. I enjoyed playing soccer in the backyard with my dad but anytime I tried to play in an organised way or in a camp, there was a certain kind of pressure like, ‘Oh I bet you’re really good at this!’ and that wasn’t fun, but I did really enjoy playing with my dad.

PC: What would be a typical way in which you would spend a Sunday in Florida aged around 10 years old? Were you an outdoor boisterous child or shy and quiet, a bookworm, an explorer?

OH: It would be interesting to know what others would say – but I think I was a strange, shy, artsy child. I was obsessed with musicals: I knew all the words to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music when I was in 7th grade My parents took me and my sister to the theatre a lot when we were growing up, this is something they always enjoyed. My dad is also a great guitar player so it wasn’t something they didn’t understand or they didn’t enjoy. I think I was probably a strange off-putting child who only wanted to talk about musicals and being in plays. I was really lucky when I moved to Florida and at 9 years old, I did my first show in a community theatre and I think that I really found that that felt like home, it felt like I was around people who were excited about the same things I was excited about. Usually they were a little bit older than I was but that didn’t matter. I was in a private school at the time which was very rigid, that catered really well to one type of student and I was definitely not that type of student. So doing theatre outside of school, I don’t know that I would be as dramatic as to say “it saved me” but I think that it did provide a real home and real outlet. In that first show in community theatre I did I met one of my best friends Sarah Glendening who is still… I talked to her two days ago I think finding theatre at that time blew the doors wide open and made me feel like I want to be doing this with these people, more than I want to be playing flag football at my private school where I have no friends.

Photo credit: Ted Ely

PC: At the time you wouldn’t say it but were lucky to have found what you wanted to do as an adult at such a young age, usually kids are much more fickle, and the fact that you are being successful doing it now and that you made a friend for life – they are huge things.

OH: Yes it’s mind-blowing looking back at it! I don’t even remember how I knew what it was to be an actor: I was saying it was what I wanted to do but I don’t remember learning what it was. I think this is true for a lot of actors and a lot of creative people, it’s just something deep inside of them that is a huge part of their identity. It’s sort of like the sky is blue and the world is round and also I am an actor. It’s just a fact. That’s not true for everybody but it is true for a lot of people. I remember asking my mom to take me to auditions for movies when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade and again I have no idea how I knew what auditions even were.

PC: What about the other more academic subjects? When I was at school I would sometimes miss a maths lesson and go to the art, drama or music department instead. Were you getting good grades on your maths and history tests?

OH: I was a really really good student for English and History; I was less good at science and maths. I’m okay in real life with the kind of math that I have to do from time to time but any sort of advanced math was really challenging. Also a thing that is not great about me is that if I care about something no one will work harder than I do, but if I don’t care there is no saving me. I can’t fake it. I know people that I went to school with that had to get perfect grades no matter what. That just didn’t make sense in my brain for some reason, so if it was an English class I felt inspired by or a history class I was excited by, I would do really well because I was interested and passionate. I would frustrate my math and science teachers who would see I was a pretty smart kid but a kid who wasn’t working as hard as he maybe could have been.

PC: There is usually a story in the interviews I do of a teacher who has inspired, did you have one?

OH: I think I had a handful of them, I was tremendously lucky. I mostly grew up in Sarasota, Florida and Sarasota at that time had probably 4 or 5 professional theatres, so I was doing shows in professional theatres when I was 10 years old with actors that came down from New York to work in Florida for three months, or actors that had had long careers in New York or Los Angeles that decided to retire to Florida but still worked as actors in these theatres. I think in some ways they were really important and substantial, significant teachers to me without being official teachers. They taught me what it means to be a professional and what it means to do this job. I think observing them and working with them was the beginning of me seeing what this looks like as an actual career. I took it all very seriously from a young age and that was probably pretty weird to a lot of people, including some of those adults.

PC: To follow that path of being an actor I know you studied Musical Theatre at the University of Michigan, why did you choose to study there?

OH: I will jump back a quick step. After 8th grade I went to a performing arts high school in Sarasota and what was so lucky about that was I spent half of my day in my academic classes and half in theatre classes. The programme itself was complicated and messy at the time I was there but the best part about it was that I got to be with other students who cared about the same things I cared about. My closest friends from high school are still my close friends now.

PC: Are they successful actors too?

OH: Some of them are, yeah A couple of years ago I went to see Laura Linney talk at the 92nd Street Y here in New York City, she is one of my favourite actors in the world, and she said that if you do theatre when you’re a child, you take those lessons with you for the rest of your whole life. You’re learning about community and creativity, you’re learning about problem solving and teamwork. I had never heard it put that way before but I thought that was extraordinary and true. I have friends from high school who have nothing to do with theatre or the arts in their day to day lives but I see the way it’s impacted them and made them more empathetic, curious and creatively-minded citizens of the world. I think in a deeply important way it continues to influence you.

Whilst I was the performing arts high school I auditioned for a lot of colleges for musical theatre because I was at that point mostly interested in doing musicals, and in the United States there are a handful of popular well known musical theatre colleges. The University of Michigan when I was applying was the top of everybody’s list and these places accept very few people. I was really daunted and nervous about the application process, because a couple of thousand people apply and they accept 20 students, a very small number of people. I was not in any way the star of my high school or anybody’s favourite student, so I didn’t go into those auditions with a ton of confidence. As a matter of fact I tried to cancel my audition for Michigan because I thought there was no way I was ever getting in. It was my dad actually who said, ‘Well we already bought the plane tickets so you have to do it.’ And thank God to this day I feel incredibly lucky that that was my college.

PC: Can you talk about the most interesting aspects of the programme you studied, was it purely the performing parts or are you interested in stage management, or being behind the camera?

OH: At Michigan I would say 80% of the classes are geared towards performance: acting, singing, dancing but (at least when I was there) you did take a class on stage management and you had to serve on the crew of a couple of shows. They really wanted to give you a broad range of exposure to a lot of different things and I think that’s really wonderful because you then understand what other people’ jobs are and you have respect for what they’re doing, and understand it in a deeper way. Also maybe you will get excited about that and that will be something you are interested in pursuing. My interest has almost always been performing – I have had maybe too much of a singular focus sometimes.

PC: I have watched a clip of you singing but how about your dancing skills, do they match up to your singing and do your singing skills match up to your acting skills?

OH: I love to sing, I think it’s an amazing way to express yourself, and I think I have a really good, solid voice but it’s not an extraordinary voice. I went to college with some people who open their mouth and sing one note and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve heard in your whole life; my voice can do a lot of things but it can’t do that. I grew up dancing quite a bit and I think it’s actually tied to my dad’s athleticism in a way, I could dance really well and I really loved dancing growing up. I took a ton of ballet and tap classes; I would say I was a B+ dancer; I was capable and there were certain ways in which I was really good. But over time I just fell in love with acting most of all.

From Oh Jerome, No
Photo credit: Teddy Blanks

PC: As a young actor did you have the usual financial troubles and have to undertake a host of jobs to support yourself?

OH: I didn’t have a ton of side jobs because I would stick with one job for a long time. They were mostly office-type jobs and I think the funniest one is I worked in the office of this catering company here in New York, just sort of organising like, if we catered for an event of yours yesterday then today I would send you a follow up email to see how it went, it was basically just a lot of copy and pasting. I believe they fired me four times, maybe three. (The boss was always firing people and trying to come up with more faster, cheaper, efficient ways to do things). Multiple times they would let me go and then three weeks later ask me if I could come back the next day. One time I was flying home to Florida for the holidays, it was around December 20th, and while I was in the air I got an email saying ‘Thank you for everything, your last day will be January 6th, I thought ‘that’s a bummer I will have to look for a new job when I get back to New York’ and then because the boss kept taking trips and they couldn’t hire anybody my last day went from being January 6th to mid October that year!

PC:  Do you think you will stay in New York?

OH: Who knows what will happen in the future, but I don’t see any reason to leave. I really love it, I understand the pace and rhythm of the city, I have great friends here, I love the theatre here, I love the job opportunities I have been able to have here. There are some phenomenal television shows shooting here right now. I like going to Los Angeles when someone gives me a job out there but I don’t know if I would move there anytime soon without a job.

PC: I suppose if you were to get a recurring role on The Walking Dead you might move to Atlanta or like 10 months in Pittsburgh for Mindhunter, that would be like moving there.

OH: Yeah, I think even if I moved for a TV role for two years even I would always come back. I really love it.

PC: You have been in some great shows – The Blacklist, The Deuce, The Sinner, Manifest: how does it feel when you turn up on set and there’s an established cast on a long running show that have been there for several seasons? Are they generally quite accommodating? Do you feel nervous? How does it run?  

OH: It can be intimidating but I do think when you are a guest actor, your job in some ways is to really jump on a train that’s already moving and not attract too much attention. There are sets I’ve been on that are incredibly welcoming: I remember shooting Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu and Jon Michael Hill, the three of them had so much fun together but they made me feel like I was part of the fun they were having, they really welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like I was one of the gang. Not coincidentally your work is better when that happens, and then there are other sets I’ve been on where you can tell immediately like, ‘Oh this is not a happy group of people,’ or it can feel on a particular episode like, ‘It’s pretty chaotic here’. Especially if you’re just coming in for a day it can really be an over-stimulating experience because you are meeting 20 or 30 people, you are having to assess the situation that you’re in, in terms of: what is this director like; what is this crew like; what are my fellow actors like; and then you also have to act as well as you possibly can, not drop the ball. I think on my best days that’s a really fun challenge and then there are definitely days where you feel steamrolled by the challenge.

So far I have shot two episodes for the new season of Manifest and I know I’m going to do at least two more. A week or two ago we were shooting maybe my most challenging and emotional scenes so far in these episodes, and right before the cameras were starting to roll I had three different people with camera phones in my face taking continuity pictures – and this 30 seconds before the camera starts recording my most important scene so far. There are just so many obstacles to your concentration, I think you have to get really skilled at focusing and making sure that when the camera is rolling you’re able to do your job to the best of your ability.

PC: When the cameras stop rolling, are you the type of actor who stays in character or do you switch back to being yourself?

OH: That’s a really good question and I think it varies scene to scene. I’m not at all the kind of actor that needs to be called by my character’s name or if someone says ‘good morning’ and I’m like, ‘Well, it’s night time in the scene so…’ that’s not my style at all. I think it’s good to keep in the mind what the task for the day is, it’s sort of like turning up or down the volume, like the dials on an old stereo. I think it’s like if you have a scene that’s very emotional, between takes maybe you’ll just turn the volume down but it’s still in the back of your mind, so that you’re still able to turn the volume up really quickly when the time comes – you don’t fully forget. I don’t feel like I drop what’s going on but I don’t tend to shut everything out either.

I think that every scene is different and every role demands different things of you. I would be wary of someone using the same approach every time, I think that would only fail you at some point. And I do think that varying your approach or determining what will be the most effective approach for each role is absolutely part of the fun.

PC: I know you were in the same Blacklist episode as Adam Godley, is that where you two became friends? Do you tend to mix with other actors socially when the camera stops rolling? Does it depend on the show?

OH: It depends on the show but I really enjoy the social aspect a lot of the time I feel better at work when I know the names of the camera operators or when I know a little bit about the DP, where they come from and what their style is but of course not every set is conducive to that. One of my favourite parts of the job now is, because I’ve been in New York for such a long time, I will probably see people on the crew I’ve worked with before. I just shot one scene for The Plot Against America (which will be on HBO next year) which is created by David Simon who created The Deuce and it was many of the same camera operators from The Deuce as well as the same costume designer from The Sinner. It’s so wonderful to see everyone and I do think that that familiarity and that history helps all of us to do our jobs better.

PC: That’s cool. When I am enthralled by a show I like to get several cast members and some of the crew, so, for example: I have interviewed 13 people involved with that show including the writers and production and I am doing the same with Mindhunter, so I’m not just focusing on the actors, I like to know how it works behind the scenes.. I like chatting with the showrunners and the crew.

OH: Ideally it feels like we are all part of the same group, doing the same thing. You can find yourself in situations where the cast is separate from the crew, or the producers don’t really talk to the cast, or the stars of the show don’t talk to the guests on the show but, in the most perfect world, I love feeling like we are all one huddle or one team. 

Jumping back to your original question, Adam Godley was my favourite part of doing that episode of The Blacklist. We became very fast friends, we both had done a lot of theatre, worked with a lot of the same people. I had seen him on Broadway in Anything Goes and I was just blown away. He is an actor that is tremendously creative and spontaneous and honest and sensitive and, as good an actor as he is, he is an even better person. The part I played on The Blacklist is not that flashy of a role but I will always be thankful I did that because Adam is such an important, amazing part of my life now.

PC: I absolutely loved The Sinner so I’d like to talk to you about that: what was the audition process like, was it just the norm?

OH: Do you know what’s so crazy about that? My audition for The Sinner – which ended up being a job that was obviously multiple episodes, much of my summer last year revolved around shooting it – I think I was in the audition room for less than two minutes! I remember it vividly, it was a scene that was just one-page long, the first scene that I have where I bring Bill Pullman’s character and Natalie Paul’s character to meet the boy (Elisha Henig), so it was that whole movement in the episode where I meet them at the bottom of the steps and walk with them and we go into the room.

The Sinner is cast by a woman named Stephanie Holbrook, who has cast me in a couple of other things and I have auditioned for her a lot and so I feel incredibly comfortable with her and also her associate Matt Glasner who was in the room with me for this particular audition. I did the scene two times and then we called it a day. As soon as I read the scene I felt like I had an understanding of the rhythm of the show and for whatever reason, it’s a certain kind of writing that clicks in my head very quickly. What’s funny  is that day I also had an audition for a different television series that was producers I had worked with before, doing a new show. They had told me all about it and said that there were a couple of parts I could be really right for, I read the script and loved it so all of my attention was on trying to get this other job but I also had my audition for The Sinner that day, but truly, 85% of my focus that day was on this other audition. Thank God it worked out the way that it did because The Sinner proved to be a tremendous gift: I loved that experience, I loved the people, I’m still friends with a lot of them – it really is one of my favourite jobs of all time.

PC: I think Bill Pullman was amazing in The Sinner: what is he like in person?

OH: If you notice, all my scenes are always with some combination of Bill or Carrie or Elisha or Natalie. We all felt like a little unit. By the time I came back to shoot the finale with those people, I did feel like we were a little travelling troupe or something because we had a tremendous amount of fun together and Bill as the lead of that show… The lead on the show often sets the tone for what the set will be like and Bill is warm and generous, encouraging. He is really a person, I think, that cares about the well-being of everyone around him; he wants everyone to do a great job; he wants everyone to have a good time. One of the first things he said to me mid-way through shooting our first scene was that we should do a play together, and I want to hold him to that, I want to make it happen. I love acting with him and I love just being around him and learning from him. He might have said that in a very off handed…

PC: But it’s happening!

OH: Whether he likes it or not.

Olli with Carrie Coon
Photo credit: Olli Haaskivi

PC: Carrie Coon seems like quite a quirky lady in real life, is she?

OH: I love her so much. I remember the first scene that I shot on The Sinner was in the second episode where Carrie and I are in a courtroom. Carrie and I have a lot of close friends in common, so it felt like we were already friends and we just spent that first day just gossiping, and I remember Antônio Campos (who directed the first two episodes so masterfully) walked by at one point and said, ‘What’s so funny is when the cameras are rolling you two are so icy and cold to each other, but I walk past you between takes and it’s like I’m walking past the set of a buddy comedy.’ We really just make each other laugh and I just look up to her in every way; I think she’s one of the most extraordinary actresses working today. She is also similar to Bill: she really wants to have fun with everybody she’s working with; she really makes everyone feel like they’re her best friend, not in any fake way or in any way that feels performative, I think she just genuinely loves being part of an ensemble, enjoying being with everyone who’s there that day, and it’s infectious. I really tried to learn as much as I could from everyone there – Bill and Carrie, Antônio who directed those episodes, and also Derek Simonds, the showrunner, who’s another amazing person and amazing artist.

PC: They are shooting the third season aren’t they?

OH: Yes! They started shooting it last week – I’m sad I’m not there with them. I have some separation anxiety knowing that.

PC: They’re having so much fun… You have been really lucky being a part of The Deuce as well. I’m a big fan of Maggie Gyllenhaal, I think she’s brilliant.

OH: I think that the way in which I’ve been the luckiest so far is that I’ve really gotten to work with people that have been so inclusive and so inspiring and really supportive. I think so much of this depends who your examples are, who you are around and who is modelling good, or bad, behaviour to you. I’m so lucky that some of those role models for me have been people like Bill and Carrie, Ed Norton, Lucy Liu, Antônio Campos, Derek Simonds, Lisa Kudrow – I’ve gotten to be around some really extraordinary people. You see Lisa Kudrow spending her day chatting with all the extras, just being friendly and warm to every single person, and you think, ‘That’s how I want to behave, I want to be like that person’.

PC: How does Antonio Campos actually give direction? How does he convey what he wants in a scene?

OH: Antônio does everything I want a director to do You also feel like he’s a cheerleader in your corner, it feels like you have a partner in crime with him. At least on The Sinner, but probably on his other projects too, he has a private rehearsal with just the actors, no crew setting up whilst your talking, just a private quiet time that’s devoted to just talking through the mechanics of the scene, seeing if anybody has any questions or ideas – it really feels like a collaboration. A lot of directors and producers think that rehearsing like that takes up time, but I think it actually saves time because then you can slide into the filming much more easily. You have a clear plan and you’ve had time as a group to talk about the scene. I think that pays dividends all day long.

Photo Credit: Nick Glimenakis

PC: How does it feel when you put everything into a scene then that scene is cut, is it a huge disappointment or just one of those things you have to accept?

OH: It can be disappointing because hopefully you are proud of your work and excited about it, but I think you also have to enter into this feeling that it can happen and it’s normal, and that it happens to everybody, and you’re really giving yourself over to a director to help make their vision happen. Things can get massively restructured in the editing process and that can be really surprising. It can be an anxiety-inducing situation and it can be disappointing, but rarely is it personal, it’s almost always about the rhythm of the whole piece or something that has nothing to do with you or your work.

PC: Does that mean if your scene gets cut your pay gets cut too or is the fee already agreed which you get regardless?

OH: You get paid after you work so you would still have gotten paid. I was momentarily sad about my scene with Sir Michael Caine being cut, I wish the world had gotten to see that, but two things: the experience is the most important part so even though no one will see it, I did have the experience of working with Sir Michael; and two, I met one of my best friends that day, Maria Dizzia, she is family to me; she and I quickly became very close so I can’t have any regrets about doing that film even though my scene didn’t see the light of day. Every single actor has multiple stories about being either cut completely or a large scene being cut down to one line or something like that.

PC: I read that you are quite adept at accents: are accents something that come easily to you?

OH: At the University of Michigan we had to take a class on dialects. I take to them pretty quickly and I enjoy studying them, it’s exciting when you have to hammer away at something very slowly and diligently and then all of a sudden it sounds the way it should. I know that part of my process of learning a new dialect is that for the first day or two I will sound wholly insane then, all of a sudden, there’s a moment where you are like, ‘Oh wow! That’s it!’ – it’s muscle memory and it’s really exciting. I haven’t had to do a ton of it lately but I would be excited if I had a role and that was part of it.

PC: Getting back to The Deuce, the latest season is set in the ‘80s, I was wondering how much you think New York has changed since you moved there 11 years ago? I know it changed massively in the ‘80s compared to the ‘70s.

OH: Definitely, and I think that is part of what people love about New York, but part of what can be disappointing about New York is that it’s constantly changing. I leave for two weeks and some new restaurant has opened or some place I love has closed, it is a continual evolution of the fabric of this city and I think no one really captures that better David Simon. I don’t know if you have watched The Wire?

PC: No I haven’t actually.

OH: David does an extraordinary job telling the story of Baltimore on The Wire. The Deuce is a very different show in a lot of ways but what those shows are so skilled at is looking at something like 42nd Street in New York City as a microcosm for how society operates, and how all these different forces come together to impact the lives of everyday citizens I had not watched any of The Deuce but then I binge watched all of it as soon as I got the job and couldn’t believe I was going to get to be a part of it. It’s really an unbelievable show.

PC: I really like the whole ‘70s Harlem scene: the music, the outfits, colours and the hair…

OH: Yes and I think you will agree every single one of those departments are extraordinary, those costumes, music… I read somewhere (you might want to look it up) that David Simon said he wanted The Deuce to feel like you just found a film from the ‘70s in a time capsule.

PC: It’s exactly like that. I think it would have been really cool to be around then but equally scary, I mean some of the stuff that went on, on the streets, was crazy.

OH: I definitely feel thankful to have 42nd Street the way that it is now as opposed to 1985 where season three takes place. There’s pros and cons to every situation but I do like my safety as I walk down the street.

PC: Do you feel quite safe generally in New York?

OH: I do, yes.

PC: Most actors I’ve interviewed have said they don’t have time to watch TV but if you do manage to, what kind of shows have you enjoyed recently?

OH: I watch a good amount of TV. I think Fleabag is extraordinary, I’m in awe of Pheobe Waller-Bridge creating that show. I loved the most recent season of Barry and I was so sad that Broad City ended, I was so sad that Veep ended, I thought both the last seasons of those shows were just wonderful television, they brought both of those shows to such beautiful endings. And then I watch the things my friends are on. One of my best friends is Meghann Fahy, who is on a show called The Bold Type, so I watch that every single week – because she is also filming in Montreal for much of the year so it feels like the only time I get to see her is when I watch that show. One of my other best friends is Monica Raymund, who is the star of a show called Hightown, I can’t wait until that comes out; I will watch every single episode of that.

PC: Can you watch yourself?

OH: I’m okay at it, I wouldn’t say I enjoy it. I know some people who have tremendous panic about it and certainly it’s not fun for me, I don’t do it as a leisure activity, but I don’t have to leave the room or anything. I have a much easier time watching myself on camera than I do listening to myself sing, that’s really challenging for me. I think you have to get used to it because you send so many audition tapes I think that makes it easier.

PC: Do you prefer going in for an audition or sending in a self-tape?

OH: It depends, there are big pros and cons to both situations. Part of it depends on how much time you have to prepare. If I don’t have much time, then I might rather make a tape in the comfort of my own home where I can do it 24 times if I need to. In an audition room you might only get two chances at something. But when you are in a room with a casting director they have information on the project and what their point of view is – you don’t get that when you are just making a tape at home with your friends. I’ve gotten jobs from both situations and there are definitely things I have enjoyed and been challenged by in both situations.

PC: Is there a particular actor or director you haven’t worked with yet but would like to?

OH: Well it goes without saying that a lot of the people I’ve already mentioned I would be so excited to work with again. If I could only pick one right now I think my answer would be Phoebe Waller-Bridge because I think Fleabag is truly off the chart. She is so incisive and so smart but never at the expense of true emotion, and she’s also hilarious and surprising. I would be happy to say even just one line she had written on a TV project. My answer could change two hours from now but I would walk across fire for her.

PC: Moving onto the music questions: can you recall what was the first record you ever purchased or downloaded?

OH: There is no way that I purchased it but the first album I ever remember making an impact was Carole King’s Tapestry. My parents were going to see a concert of hers in downtown Cleveland, and I believe they brought home was an actual record. I would have been only 5 or 6 years old but everyone in the world knows that it’s one of the most important albums of all time. In terms of an album I bought myself it was probably a musical, and it may have been Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. There were many different  recordings of many of the different women that had played that role and I believe, at different times, I have owned all of them.

PC: What would be the last album you bought or what song is in your head right now?

OH: Lana Del Ray’s new album Norman Fucking Rockwell – I’ve been listening to it non-stop since it came out. It’s getting colder in New York right now and I like going for a walk in the park listening to that album; I think she accomplished something really exciting.

PC: Tell me about a song that holds a special memory for you, wherever it was, at high school or a romance you had.

OH: There are so many, nothing transports you better than music does. The first thing that comes to mind is Smash Mouth’s “All Star”. My first car was a 1999 Volkswagen Golf and I remember driving with one of my best friends, Alice, and there’s this lyric:

“Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas?

I need to get myself away from this place

I said yep what a concept

I could use a little fuel myself

And we could all use a little change”

I remember Alice and I, at the exact same moment, understood the double meaning of that for the first time. And that memory is also tied into memories of growing up and when we were driving by ourselves for the first time. We were running around our little town in Florida having great fun with each other and for whatever reason, that is the first thing that comes to mind.

PC: Do you play an instrument?

OH: I don’t, I wish I did. I play incredibly basic piano. I played clarinet in the middle school band at one point in the most basic way. I am incredibly jealous of people that do play, especially the piano. I saw Ben Folds in concert when I was in college, and was just immediately like, ‘Why did I give up my piano lessons?’

PC: Obviously you can dance on stage but do you willingly get up in a club, at a wedding, party or do you have to be dragged up?

OH: I do enjoy dancing at weddings from time to time but I definitely don’t go to any clubs. Overall my preferred social situation is like three friends come over and we order a pizza, that’s much more my thing.

PC: Whose was the last live gig you went to?

OH: I don’t see a ton of live music; I wish I was a little more in touch with that. I went to see my friend Johnny Gallagher play Rockwood here in New York City – he is an amazing actor who was on The Newsroom for many years but also has this great record he released and he actually sings a song about my hometown Sarasota. That may be the last music performance I was at and I had a total blast because he’s wonderful.

PC: If you were going on a road trip from New York to Sarasota in a VW Golf what would be on your playlist?

OH: If it was on shuffle it would be a little bit of everything: a ton of songs from the ‘90s, obscure musicals that I know all the words to, then a lot of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. It would be a really wide range, including recordings from my voice lessons – which would be embarrassing and I would skip past those very quickly – it would be as broad as range as you can imagine.

PC: It’s your last supper in planet Earth, what would be your food of choice and what would you wash it down with?

OH: Anything that my mom makes. She is an amazing cook – I think it would be her chicken soup, it’s pretty special.

PC: She will be very pleased to hear that.

OH: It’s true! There are a lot of great restaurants that I love but that would be the answer. There aren’t a ton of liquids that go well with chicken soup so maybe just a good Diet Coke. I don’t drink alcohol, and I like some weird green juices, but I think with that chicken soup, some bread and a Diet Coke, I’d be happy.

PC: Do you have a book on the go just now?

OH: I have been reading a lot of things. I just finally finished Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion; I had read a lot of the individual essays before but I had never read the compilation. She is obviously extraordinary, what a thrilling writer. My friend Meg Fee just came out with a book called Places I Stopped on the Way Home which took my breath away – I’m so excited for her. I also just read Emily Nussbaum’s book, I Like to Watch, which is a blast: a beautiful book about television and how we consume it. I need to start reading The Plot Against America which I just shot; I’m really excited to read that book.

Shooting Motherless Brooklyn
Photo credit: Olli Haaskivi

PC: Did I read you’re in Motherless Brooklyn?

OH: Yes I am.

PC: I thought so, the actor Michael Gaston recommended the book to me last year, I bought it but haven’t actually read it yet.

OH: It is an awesome book! I read it as soon as I got cast in the film.

PC: Michael told me he’d walked round with it in his jacket pocket for a few years before he finally finished it, so I didn’t feel in a rush to read it (laughs) but I really must.

OH: It is a beautiful book.

PC: Final question: you wake up one day, it’s a perfect day you have nothing in your calendar, you haven’t got to be anywhere, what would you do?

OH: Honestly, I would sleep in a little bit, walk down to my favourite tea place to get a tea and probably meet a friend there. Around 12:30 I would go and start shooting a television show I really love, something with actors and a crew that I love to be with, in a role I love to play. Maybe it could be a short day and if we finish at 7 or 7:30 then I could have a friend over for dinner and we could walk in the park that’s right next to my apartment and I would think that would be a really exciting day. Very low key.

PC: Sounds nice. Extra question just randomly came to mind… Do you have any cats?

OH: I don’t, I’m very allergic. My best friend from college, an amazing actor called A. J. Shively, we lived together in Queens for seven years when I first moved to New York, we kept a long line of beta fish and we had a lot of fun feeding them and discovering their personalities, but since then I’ve not had a pet.

You can find Olli on Instagram and at his website

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.

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